- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
It’s not every day that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror group’s North Africa affiliate, explains itself to the press. But that’s just what happened last week, when media spokesman Ahmed Abu Abdulelah answered questions posed to the organization’s Twitter account.
In fact, I posed a question to AQIM that the organization saw fit to answer: What had al Qaeda learned from the experience of al Qaeda in Iraq? The Iraqi organization had alienated its erstwhile allies by launching indiscriminate attacks that killed Sunni and Shiite civilians alike — I was trying to get at whether its North African counterpart was tailoring its approach with that cautionary tale in mind. Judging by the rudimentary state institutions al Qaeda set up in the Malian city of Timbuktu — and that it was willing to do a Q&A with Western reporters — it seemed it may have learned a thing or two.
But if AQIM sees al Qaeda in Iraq’s behavior as anything but praiseworthy, it didn’t let on. "What we learned from the experience of Al-Qaeda and the Mujahid groups in Iraq is that Allah Almighty is capable of anything on earth and in the sky, and it increased our certitude that the victory is from Allah alone," spokesman Abdulelah wrote.
The main purpose of the interview seemed to be to put pressure on France, which still has troops on the ground in Mali. Responding to a question about whether it had threatened to blow up the Eiffel Tower, AQIM declared, "We support and call all the Muslims to target France and its interests and subjects inside and outside France until it withdraws the last soldier from the land of the Muslims."
AQIM also struck a nationalistic note, framing its efforts as a struggle to let Muslim countries control their resources and choose their own forms of government. "Today France is saying to the world that it doesn’t accept the establishment of an Islamic state that is 3000 km away from France, because it resembles a danger on it, and that the uranium of the Muslims in Nigera, and their gold in Bamako [Mali], and their oil in Algeria, is part of its national security," the spokesman wrote. "Do the French accept such a talk about their resources in the Alps or their farms in the Paris Basin?"
The second bogeyman for al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, after France, is the Algerian government. In one revealing exchange, the AQIM spokesman describes his organization’s strategy in the country: Popular support, he says "isn’t a gift that comes down from the sky on the non-working," but requires "gentle dawah [teaching of Islam] and good role model, good treatment, and you will see wonders from it God willing."
Perhaps al Qaeda is adapting, after all.